Anecdotal evidence points to a rise in women engaged in retail crime

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Women have been part of shoplifting and organized retail crime at least since the development of the department store in the mid-1800s, but their participation is growing in the 21st century, suggests Chris McGourty, founder and executive director of the National Anti-Organized Retail Crime Association.

To make his point about the current surge, McGourty lists several high profile cases: Women charged with stealing thousands of dollars in merchandise from a Macy’s store at the Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H.; four women arrested for stealing from 13 different stores at Tysons Corner Center in Virginia last holiday season; three women charged with felonies for aggressive shoplifting at stores in and around Omaha, Neb.; and several young women overwhelming security at high-end San Francisco stores and stealing $40,000 worth of handbags and other leather goods.

Despite the anecdotal evidence, the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention maintains that men and women shoplift at approximately the same rate. Studies show three times as many men are serving time behind bars for shoplifting as women.

Female shoppers have traditionally received special treatment from retailers, dating back to the middle of the 19th century when department stores were one of the few places a woman could be seen unaccompanied outside the home.

Alto Alliance, which is amassing data to quantify shoplifting activities and prosecutions, is building a database of U.S. shoplifting incidents. It includes information such as which retailers are targeted, what merchandise is stolen, when shoplifting occurs, who steals with whom and what the outcomes are when cases are prosecuted.

Karl Langhorst, executive vice president of Alto U.S. and former corporate head of loss prevention for Kroger, says the data collection is based on three pillars: intelligent prosecution, deterrent merchandising and robust analytics for data mining. Alto’s software includes a communication function that keeps retailers informed on the status of cases proceeding through law enforcement channels and on to the courts.

Alto Alliance is not the only business working on ORC statistics. The D&D Daily tracks ORC incidents using publicly reported information. In 2017, there was a 13 percent decline in ORC cases compared with 2016, although average value of merchandise stolen per case increased 36 percent, from $71,877 to $97,658, according to the D&D Daily report.

The number of female suspects apprehended for ORC last year rose to 41 percent, its highest level in four years, according to The D&D Daily.

Changing patterns

Female shoppers have traditionally received special treatment from retailers, dating back to the middle of the 19th century when department stores were one of the few places a woman could be seen unaccompanied outside the home. That trust was breached back then and it might be happening again.

In contemporary settings, “women by and large have been less suspected [of shoplifting]from a retailer perspective,” Langhorst says. In recent years, drug addiction might be contributing to the perceived rise in women engaging in ORC activity.

“A lot of crime that is drug-related is also increasing. Drugs are an equal opportunity problem,” Langhorst says. “As more women are getting involved, ORC is a great way to make money.”

Anecdotal and subjective observations aside, Langhorst says traditional patterns of shoplifting may be changing, and stores are changing along with it. “Retailers are very much learning that they shouldn’t stereotype,” he says. “They’re re-emphasizing that they don’t ever assume what kind of problem a customer might be, that there shouldn’t be any more focus or any less focus on any particular customer.”

Most retailers address theft on a cyclical basis, depending upon when their internal “number” passes a certain threshold, Langhorst says. “But the concern with ORC is that it’s not cyclical,” he says. “If you take your eye off ORC, the word will get out on the street.”

Another rising trend in ORC is the level of violence, which may also be related to drug use among shoplifters. “I’ve never seen a higher level of violence than right now,” Langhorst says. “This is an all-time high in violence. It’s off the charts. Violence is gender-neutral and the women are just as committed to it as the men.”

David P. Schulz has been writing for STORES since 1982 and is the author of several non-fiction books.

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